Postcard from Music City

Postcard from Music City

Nashville, Tennessee, is now recovering from the presence of 13,000 independent brewers and beer industry types — with a growing number arriving from outside the United States. They were there for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, surely the world’s largest gathering of brewers. 

It was a chance for all to compare notes on where the beer market is headed — nationally and globally — as well as look for ideas that can capture the attention of an increasingly fickle drinking public.

Smaller, independent breweries in the U.S. have enjoyed unprecedented market growth for about 20 years, but now that growth is slowing. As in other countries, including Germany, people are drinking less beer these days — the U.S. beer market, for example, shrunk by 1 percent last year.

The “craft” segment is still growing

On the other hand, the “craft” segment — that is, beer made by relatively small and independently owned breweries — is still growing, as people look for beers that are more locally rooted, more aromatic, more flavorful, or just more interesting. However, it’s growing more slowly than before. U.S. craft beer grew 5 percent in 2017 — less impressive than the double-digit growth enjoyed by the segment for several years, when the segment was smaller.

Today there are more than 6,000 breweries in the United States (compared to about 1,300 in Germany). There are thousands more in the planning stages. These breweries are competing for drinkers whose attention spans may be shrinking, and they are not only competing with each other. They are competing with wine, cocktails — and with social media, that everyday drug that provides endorphin hits and feel-good approval from unseen networks of peers.

Millennials automatically do the marketing for brands

One of the lessons repeated in various talks and seminars is how to keep the attention of millennials — those younger drinkers who, marketers say, are more driven by new experiences than by money or the simple ability of alcohol to help us relax. They want to snap photos of these experiences — for example, elaborate and expensive cocktails that involve a bit of a show — then share them online among friends and acquaintances. Thusly, as one speaker put it, “they do your marketing for you.”

This helps to explain the exploding trend of hazy or New England-style IPAs, which look distinctive (if not always beautiful) in the glass. It also helps to explain nascent, tongue-in-cheek trends like “glitter beer” — given artificial sparkle by the addition of edible glitter, like the stuff sprinkled on cupcakes. It has no discernable impact on flavor but gives the drinker something to admire and photograph — a superficial addition sure to make Reinheitsgebot purists cringe.

Still, in bar after bar in America, the beer one usually receives is a sad-looking thing. It often arrives in a plain, practice “shaker” pint glass, filled with astonishing speed, and arriving with little or no foam. Clarity is all over the map, from water-clear to murky and muddy. Even when there is foam, it doesn’t tend to last long.

Beers worthy of sharing on Instagram

It’s enough to make one wonder whether the brewers and bars could benefit from revisiting some basic lessons of brewing and beer service: clarity, sturdy foam, careful pouring and attractive glassware, which can come together to produce beautiful beers worthy of sharing on Instagram.

There are hopeful signs. At the conference’s trade show, the most popular spot was the Brewery Supply Group exhibit, featuring 12 taps and beers that rotate throughout the week. On the first day, the fastest-disappearing beer was the Slow-Pour Pils, brewed by the Bierstadt Lagerworks of Denver, Colorado. Its name is accurate, requiring a careful pour that leads to a more attractive beer with resilient foam.

The brewers clearly enjoyed it. But they may be a group whose preferences are easier to predict than the customers they are trying to please.